Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Rome and Home: The Cultural Uses of Rome in Early Modern English Literature: Introduction

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Rome and Home: The Cultural Uses of Rome in Early Modern English Literature: Introduction

Article excerpt

Ben Jonson's comedy, Poetaster (1601), begins with an induction scene in which the allegorical figure of Envy appears on stage and expresses her intention to distort the meaning of the play. She outlines to the audience her 'covetous hope' that the forthcoming play with give her the opportunity

To blast your pleasures and destroy your sports

With wrestings, comments, applications,

Spy-like suggestions, privy whisperings,

And thousand such promoting sleights as these (Induction 23-6).1

However, upon discovering that the play's setting is Rome, Envy then goes on to express the frustration of her initial hopes that there would be opportunities for such potentially malicious 'comments', 'applications', and 'privy whisperings' about the play by asking the exasperated rhetorical question, 'How might I force this to the present state?' (Induction 34). In other words, a setting as remote, both temporally and geographically, as Rome under the emperor Augustus can offer no scope for such apparently distorting topical application. Such points pre-empt the possible discovery of topical analogies and indeed this very play, along with his subsequent Roman tragedy Sejanus His Fall (1603), saw Jonson having to answer for the contents before the authorities.2 Sejanus, in fact, is notable for dramatising an episode in which the Roman historian Cordus is forced to answer to charges that his historical accounts of Brutus and Cassius represent covert criticism of Tiberius' regime; one observer also cautions that such events are 'queasy to be touched' in the present political climate. Annabel Patterson is right to point out that these kinds of 'Disclaimers of topical intention are not to be trusted, and are more likely to be entry codes to precisely the kind of reading they protest against'.3 Although Envy seeks to undermine and foreclose such possible 'applications', her rhetoric implicitly reveals the real potential for Roman history to act as vehicle for commenting upon events affecting the condition of early modern England.

However, the resonances between ancient Rome and the 'present state' were not confined, by any means, to the 'wrestings, comments' and 'applications' mentioned by Envy. In addition to this potential for such topical applications, dramatists made frequent attempts to introduce familiar features into their Roman settings. One notable example of this occurs in Thomas Lodge's The Wounds of Civil War (1589), the earliest extant Renaissance drama set in ancient Rome, in which the burgher, Curtall, responds to the news that Sulla has relinquished his titles by berating him for his 'base mind, that being in the Paul's steeple of honor hast cast thyself into the sink of simplicity' (5.5.224-6).4 In this instance, Sulla's fall from his formerly elevated position is articulated in decidedly 'local' terms; Sulla has fallen into 'the sink of simplicity', after having occupied a level of honour analogous to 'Paul's steeple', an allusion to the peak of St Paul's Cathedral which was the highest point in London before it was struck by lightning in 1561.5 Douglas Bruster cites this as an example of the ways in which various Renaissance dramas 'frequently owe some debt (often a significant one) to London for their compositional genesis' and as one of numerous instances in which, through 'humanistic parallelism and the exploitation of urban likenesses, London often became Rome, even as Rome became London'.6 Some notable examples of this trend also include allusions to the myth that the Tower of London was built by Julius Caesar (the significances of which are considered in the essays by Laurie Johnson, Domenico Lovascio, and Miranda Fay Thomas), as well as more specifically anachronistic elements, most notably the clock in Julius Caesar, in Roman settings. These are specific examples of the ways in which writers in early modern England capitalised upon the perceived resonances between Rome and 'home'. Such correspondences also complement the broader sense, highlighted by Warren Chernaik, that 'there are certain values that are characteristically Roman, but not geographically or temporally limited to a particular place'. …

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